NOAA's Response and Restoration Blog

An inside look at the science of cleaning up and fixing the mess of marine pollution


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Carrying on a Nearly Fifty Year Tradition, Scientists Examine the Intersection of Pollution and Marine Life

As reliably as the tides, each month biologist Donald J. Reish would wash over the library at California State University, Long Beach, armed with stacks of 3×5 index cards. On these cards, Reish meticulously recorded every scientific study published that month on pollution’s effects on marine life. When he began this ritual in 1967, this did not amount to very many studies.

“There was essentially none at the time,” says Reish, who helped pioneer the study of pollution’s impacts on marine environments in the 1950s.

Nevertheless, after a year of collecting as much as he could find in scientific journals, he would mail the index cards with their handwritten notes to a volunteer crew that often included his former graduate students, including Alan Mearns, now an ecologist with NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration. Like a wave, they would return to the library to read, review, and send summaries of these studies back to Reish. At his typewriter, he would compile the individual summaries into one comprehensive list, an “in case you missed it” for scientists interested in this emerging field of study. This compilation would then be published in a scientific journal itself.

By the early 2000s, Reish handed off leadership of this annual effort to Mearns, an early recruit to the project. Today, Mearns continues the nearly 50 year tradition of reviewing the state of marine pollution science and publishing it in the journal Water Environment Research. Their 2014 review, “Effects of Pollution on Marine Organisms,” comes together a little differently than in the 1960s and 70s—and covers issues that have changed with the years as well.

Signs of the Times

Man and woman at a desk covered with scientific papers.

NOAA Office of Response and Restoration biologists Alan Mearns and Nicolle Rutherford tackle another year’s worth of scientific studies, part of an effort begun in 1967. (NOAA)

For starters, vastly more studies are being published on marine pollution and its environmental effects. For this year’s publication, Mearns and his six co-authors, who include Reish and NOAA scientists Nicolle Rutherford and Courtney Arthur, reviewed 341 scientific papers which they pulled from a larger pool of nearly 1,000 studies.

The days of having to physically visit a library each month to read the scientific journals are also over. Instead, Mearns can wait until the end of the year to scour online scientific search engines. Emails replace the handwritten 3×5 index cards. And fortunately, typewriters are no longer involved.

The technology the reviewers are using isn’t the only thing to change with the years. In the early days, the major contaminants of concern were heavy metals, such as copper, which were turning up in the bodies of fish and invertebrates. Around the 1970s, the negative effects of the insecticide DDT found national attention, thanks to the efforts of biologist Rachel Carson in her seminal book Silent Spring.

Today, Mearns and Reish see the focus of research shifting to other, often more complicated pollutants, such as nanomaterials, which can be any of a number of materials roughly 100,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. On one hand, nanotechnology is helping scientists decipher the effects of some pollutants, while, on the other, nanomaterials, such as those found in cosmetics, show potentially serious effects on some marine life including mussels.

Another major trend has been the evolution of the ways scientists evaluate the effects of pollutants on marine life. Researchers in the United States and Western Europe used to study the toxicity of a pollutant by increasing the amount animals are exposed to until half the study animals died. In the 1990s, researchers began exploring pollutants’ finer physiological effects. How does exposure to X pollutant affect, for example, a fish’s ability to feed or reproduce?

Nowadays, the focus is even more refined, zeroing in on the molecular scale to discern how pollutants affect an animal’s genetic material, its DNA. How does the presence of oil change whether certain genes in a fish’s liver are turned on or off? What does that mean for the fish?

A Year of Pollution in Review

With three Office of Response and Restoration scientists working on this effort, it unsurprisingly features a lot on oil spills and marine debris, two areas of our expertise.

Of particular interest to Mearns and Rutherford, as oil spill biologists, are the studies of biodegradation of oil in the ocean, specifically, how microbes break down and eat components of oil, especially the toxic polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Scientists are examining collections of genes in such microbes and determining which ones produce enzymes that degrade PAHs.

“That field has really exploded,” says Mearns. “It’s just amazing what they’re finding once they use genomics and other tools to go into [undersea oil spill] plumes and see what these critters are doing and eating.”

Marine debris research in 2013 focused on the effects of eating, hitchhiking on, or becoming entangled in debris. Studies examined the resulting impacts on marine life, including sea birds, fish, crabs, turtles, marine mammals, shellfish, and even microbes. The types of debris that came up again and again were abandoned fishing gear and plastic fragments. In addition, quite a bit of research attempted to fill in gaps in understanding of how plastic debris might take up and then leach out potentially dangerous chemicals.

Attitude Adjustment

A group of men and women stand around Don Reish.

Reish often relied on his former graduate students, including NOAA’s Alan Mearns, to help review the many studies on marine pollution’s effects each year. Shown here in 2004, Reish (seventh from left) is surrounded by a few of his former students who gathered to honor him at the Southern California Academy of Sciences Annual Meeting. Mearns is fifth from left and another contributer, Phil Oshida of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, stands between and behind Mearns and Reish. (Alan Mearns)

Perhaps the most significant change over the decades has been a change in attitudes. Reish recalled a presentation he gave at a scientific meeting in 1955. He was discussing his study of how marine worms known as polychaetes changed where they lived based on the effects of pollution in southern California. Afterward, he sat down next to a professor from another college, whose response to his presentation was, “Don, why don’t you go do something important?”

In 2014 attitudes generally skew to the other end of the spectrum when it comes to understanding human impacts on our world and how intertwined these impacts often are with human well-being.

And while there is a lot of bad news about these impacts, Mearns and Reish have seen some bright spots as well. Scientists are starting to observe slow declines in the presence of toxic chemicals, such as DDT from insecticides and PCBs from industrial manufacturing, which last a long time in the environment and build up in the bodies of living things, such as the fish humans like to catch and eat.

The end of the year is approaching and, reliably, Mearns and his colleagues are again preparing to scan hundreds of studies for their annual review of the scientific literature. Reflecting on this effort, Mearns points out another benefit of bringing together such a wide array of research disciplines. It encourages him to cross traditional boundaries of scientific study, enriching his work in the process.

“For me, it inspires out-of-the-box thinking,” says Mearns. “I’ll be looking at wastewater discharge impacts and I’ll spot something that I think is relevant to oil spill studies…We can find out things from these other fields and apply them to our own.”


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How Ghost Fishing Is Haunting Our Ocean

No, ghost fishing has nothing to do with ghostbusters flicking fishing rods from a boat.

But what is ghost fishing? It’s a not-at-all-supernatural phenomenon that occurs when lost or discarded fishing gear remains in the ocean and continues doing what it was made to do: catch fish. These nets and traps haunt the many types of marine life unlucky enough to become snared in them. That includes species of turtles, fish, sharks, lobsters, crabs, seabirds, and marine mammals.

Fortunately, the NOAA Marine Debris Program isn’t scared off by a few fishing nets that haven’t moved on from the underwater world. For example, through the Fishing for Energy partnership, NOAA is funding projects to study and test ways to keep fishers from losing their gear in the first place and lower the impacts lost gear has on marine life and their homes.

You can learn more about these four recent projects which are taking place from the South Carolina coast to Washington’s Puget Sound. A project at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at The College of William and Mary will pay commercial fishermen to test special biodegradable panels on crab pots. After a certain amount of time underwater, these panels will break down and begin allowing creatures to escape from the traps. If successful, this feature could help reduce the traps’ ghost fishing potential. The researchers also will be examining whether terrapin turtles, a declining species often accidentally drowned in crab pots, will bypass the traps based on the color of the entrance funnel.

Another, unrelated effort which NOAA and many others have been supporting for years is focused on fishing out the thousands of old salmon nets lost—sometimes decades ago—in Washington’s Puget Sound. These plastic mesh nets sometimes remain drifting in the water column, while other times settling on the seafloor, where they also degrade the bottom habitat.

According to Joan Drinkwin of the Northwest Straits Foundation, the organization leading the effort, “They become traps for fish, diving birds, and mammals. Small fish will dart in and out of the mesh and predators will go after those fish and become captured in the nets. And as those animals get captured in the nets, they become bait for more scavengers.”

You can watch a video about this ongoing project produced by NOAA-affiliate Oregon SeaGrant to learn more about both the problem and the solutions.

Scuba diver next to huge mass of fishing nets underwater.

This “super net” was first reported in September 2013 at Pearl and Hermes Atoll in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. In 2014 scuba and free divers removed this mass of fishing gear that was more than 28 feet long, 7 feet wide, and had a dense curtain that extended 16 feet deep. (NOAA)

Thousands of miles away from the Pacific Northwest, ghost nets are also an issue for the otherwise vibrant coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Every year for nearly two decades, NOAA has been removing the lost fishing nets which pile up on the atolls and small islands. This year, divers cleared away 57 tons of old fishing nets and plastic debris. One particularly troubling “super net” found this year measured 28 feet by 7 feet and weighed 11.5 tons. It had crushed coral at Pearl and Hermes Atoll and was so massive that divers had to cut it into three sections to be towed individually back to the main NOAA ship. During this year’s mission, divers also managed to free three protected green sea turtles which were trapped in various nets.

But the origins of this huge and regular flow of old fishing nets to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands remain a mystery. The islands lay hundreds of miles from any city but also within an area where oceanic and atmospheric forces converge to accumulate marine debris from all over the Pacific Ocean.

“You’ll go out there to this remote place and pull tons of this stuff off a reef,” comments Jim Potemra, an oceanographer at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa, “that’s like going to Antarctica and finding two tons of soda cans.”

You can learn more about the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s efforts related to ghost fishing and why certain types of marine life may be more likely to get tangled up in discarded nets and other ocean trash.


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Untangling Both a Whale and Why Marine Life Get Mixed up With Our Trash

Tail-view of humpback whale tangled in rope and nets underwater.

A humpback whale entangled in fishing gear swims near the ocean’s surface in 2005. (NOAA/Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary)

In the United States alone, scientific reports show at least 115 different species of marine life have gotten tangled up—literally—in the issue of marine debris. And when you look across the globe that number jumps to 200 species. Those animals affected range from marine mammals and sea turtles to sea birds, fish, and invertebrates.

Sadly, a humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) swimming in the blue waters off of Maui, Hawaii, got first-hand experience with this issue in February 2014. Luckily, trained responders from the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary were able to remove the long tangle of fishing rope wrapped around the whale’s head, mouth, and right pectoral fin. According to NOAA’s National Marine Sanctuaries:

“A long pole with a specially designed hook knife was used by trained and permitted personnel to cut through the entanglement.

Hundreds of feet of small gauge line were collected after the successful disentanglement. The entanglement was considered life threatening and the whale is confirmed to be totally free of gear.”

Check out these short videos taken by the response team for a glimpse of what it’s like trying to free one of these massive marine mammals from this debris:

Net Results

While this whale was fortunate enough to have some help escaping, the issue of wildlife getting tangled in marine debris is neither new nor going away. Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program and National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science reviewed scientific reports of ocean life entangled by marine debris in the United States. You can read the full NOAA report [PDF].

They looked at more than 170 reports reaching all the way back to 1928. However, wildlife entanglements didn’t really emerge as a larger problem until after 1950 and into the 1970s when plastic and other synthetic materials became popular. Before that time, fishing gear and “disposable” trash tended to be made out of materials that broke down in the environment, for example, hemp rope or paper bags. Nowadays, when plastic packing straps and nylon fishing ropes get lost or discarded in the ocean, they stick around for a lot longer—long enough for marine life to find and get wrapped up in them.

One of the findings of the NOAA report was that seals and sea lions (part of a group known as pinnipeds) were the type of marine life most likely to become entangled in nets and other debris in the United States. Sea turtles were a close second.

But why these animals? Is there something that makes them especially vulnerable to entanglement?

Location, Location, Location

The two species with the highest reported numbers of entanglements were northern fur seals (Callorhinus ursinus) and Hawaiian monk seals (Monachus schauinslandi). Both of these seals may live in areas where marine debris tends to build up in higher concentrations, increasing their chances of encountering and getting tangled in it.

For example, Hawaiian monk seals live among the coral reefs of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, where some 50 tons of old fishing gear washes up each year. These islands are near the North Pacific Subtropical Convergence Zone, where oceanic and atmospheric forces bring together not only plenty of food for marine life but also lots of debris floating in the ocean. Humpback whales migrate across these waters twice a year, which might be how the humpback near Maui ended up in a tangled mess earlier this year.

Just Behave

Monk sleep sleeping on nets on beach.

An endangered Hawaiian monk seal snuggles up on a pile of nets and other fishing gear in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s, the population declined to one-third of its size due at least in part to entanglement in trawl nets and other debris that drift into the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands from other areas (e.g., Alaska, Russia, Japan) and accumulates along the beaches and in lagoon reefs of atolls. (NOAA)

While being in the wrong place at the wrong time can lead to many unhappily tangled marine animals, behavior also plays into the problem. Some species exhibit particular behaviors that unknowingly put them at greater risk when marine debris shows up.

Not only does the endangered Hawaiian monk seal live on shores prone to the buildup of abandoned nets and plastic trash, but the seals actually seem to enjoy a good nap or lounge on piles of old fishing gear, according to visiting scientists in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. The playful, curious nature of young seals and humpback whales also makes them more likely to become entangled in marine debris.

Sea turtles, young and old, are another group whose behaviors evolved to help them survive in a world without human pollution but which in today’s world sometimes place them in harm’s way. Young sea turtles like to hide from predators under floating objects, which too often end up being marine debris. And because sea turtles enjoy munching on the food swirling around ocean convergence zones, such as the one in the North Pacific, they also munch on and get mixed up with the marine debris that gathers there too—especially items with loops and openings to get caught on.

While these animals can’t do much about their behaviors, we humans can. You can:


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The Earth Is Blue and We’d Like to Keep It That Way

Pod of dolphins swimming.

Spinner dolphins in the lagoon at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. A pod of over 200 spinner dolphins frequent Midway Atoll’s lagoon. (NOAA/Andy Collins)

Often, you have to leave a place to gain some perspective.

Sometimes, that means going all the way to outer space.

When humans ventured away from this planet for the first time, we came to the stunning realization that Earth is blue. A planet covered in sea-to-shining-sea blue. And increasingly, we began to worry about protecting it. With the creation of the National Marine Sanctuaries system in 1972, a very special form of that protection began to be extended to miles of ocean in the United States. Today, that protection takes the form of 14 marine protected areas encompassing more than 170,000 square miles of marine and Great Lakes waters.

Starting October 23, 2014, NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is celebrating this simple, yet profound realization about our planet—that Earth is Blue—on their social media accounts. You can follow along on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and now their brand-new Instagram account @NOAAsanctuaries. Each day, you’ll see an array of striking photos (plus weekly videos) showing off NOAA’s—and more importantly, your—National Marine Sanctuaries, in all of their glory. Share your own photos and videos from the sanctuaries with the hashtag #earthisblue and find regular updates at sanctuaries.noaa.gov/earthisblue.html.

You can kick things off with this video:

Marine sanctuaries are important places which help protect everything from humpback whales and lush kelp forests to deep-sea canyons and World War II shipwrecks. But sometimes the sanctuaries themselves need some extra protection and even restoration. In fact, one of the first marine sanctuaries, the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off of southern California, was created to protect waters once imperiled by a massive oil spill which helped inspire the creation of the sanctuary system in the first place.

Japanese tsunami dock located on beach within Olympic National Park and National Marine Sanctuary.

To minimize damage to the coastline and marine habitat, federal agencies removed the Japanese dock that turned up on the Washington coast in late 2012. In addition to being located within a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park, the dock was also within NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and adjacent to the Washington Islands National Wildlife Refuge Complex. (National Park Service)

At times NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is called to this role when threats such as an oil spill, grounded ship, or even huge, floating dock endanger the marine sanctuaries and their incredible natural and cultural resources.

Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary

In March 2013, we worked with a variety of partners, including others in NOAA, to remove a 185-ton, 65-foot Japanese floating dock from the shores of Washington. This dock was swept out to sea from Misawa, Japan, during the 2011 tsunami and once it was sighted off the Washington coast in December 2012, our oceanographers helped model where it would wash up.

Built out of plastic foam, concrete, and steel, this structure was pretty beat up by the time it ended up inside NOAA’s Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary and a designated wilderness portion of Olympic National Park. A threat to the environment, visitors, and wildlife before we removed it, its foam was starting to escape to the surrounding beach and waters, where it could have been eaten by the marine sanctuary’s whales, seals, birds, and fish.

Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary

In an effort to protect the vibrant marine life of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, NOAA’s Restoration Center began clearing away illegal lobster fishing devices known as “casitas” in June 2014. The project is funded by a criminal case against a commercial diver who for years used casitas to poach spiny lobsters from the sanctuary’s seafloor. Constructed from materials such as metal sheets, cinder blocks, and lumber, these unstable structures not only allow poachers to illegally harvest huge numbers of spiny lobsters but they also damage the seafloor when shifted around during storms.

A spiny lobster in a casita on the seafloor.

A spiny lobster in a casita in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA is removing these illegal lobster fishing devices which damage seafloor habitat. (NOAA)

Also in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, our office and several partners ran through what it would be like to respond to an oil spill in the sanctuary waters. In April 2005, we participated in Safe Sanctuaries 2005, an oil spill training exercise that tested the capabilities of several NOAA programs, as well as the U.S. Coast Guard. The drill scenario involved a hypothetical grounding at Elbow Reef, off Key Largo, of an 800-foot cargo vessel carrying 270,000 gallons of fuel. In the scenario, the grounding injured coral reef habitat and submerged historical artifacts, and an oil spill threatened other resources. Watch a video of the activities conducted during the drill.

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument

Even hundreds of miles from the main cluster of Hawaiian islands, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument does not escape the reach of humans. Each year roughly 50 tons of old fishing nets, plastics, and other marine debris wash up on the sensitive coral reefs of the marine monument. Each year for nearly 20 years, NOAA divers and scientists venture out there to remove the debris.

This year, the NOAA Marine Debris Program’s Dianna Parker and Kyle Koyanagi are documenting the effort aboard the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette. You can learn more about and keep up with this expedition on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.


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Follow Along as NOAA Clears the Waters of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands

Two people pull nets from the ocean into a small boat.

Two members of the NOAA dive team remove derelict fishing gear from a reef at Midway Atoll during the 2013 marine debris removal cruise. (NOAA)

Turquoise waters, vibrant coral reefs, white sand beaches—this is often what we think of when we think about far-off islands in the Pacific Ocean. But even the furthest reaches of wilderness, such as the tropical reefs, islands, and atolls of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument, which are hundreds of miles from the main Hawaiian archipelago, can be polluted by human influence. In these shallow waters, roughly 52 tons of plastic fishing nets wash up on coral reefs and shorelines each year.

For nearly two decades, NOAA has been leading an annual mission to clean up these old nets that can smother corals and entangle marine life, including endangered Hawaiian monk seals. This year, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has two staff—Dianna Parker and Kyle Koyanagi—joining the NOAA Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center scientists and divers on board the NOAA Ship Oscar Elton Sette to document this effort.

A man pulls a net out of the ocean into a small boat.

Chief scientist Mark Manuel hauls derelict nets over the side of a small boat at Maro Reef during the 2014 expedition. (NOAA)

You can follow their journey to remove nets from five areas in the marine monument:

You can keep track of all things related to this expedition on the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.


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10 Unexpected Reasons to Join This Year’s International Coastal Cleanup

Volunteers in a boat use nets to remove debris from waters in Honolulu.

Volunteers collect debris from the water during the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup in Honolulu, Hawaii. (NOAA)

There are plenty of obvious reasons to join the more than half a million other volunteers picking up trash during this year’s International Coastal Cleanup on Saturday, September 20, 2014. Keeping our beaches clean and beautiful. Preventing sea turtles and other marine life from eating plastic. Not adding to the size of the garbage patches.

But just in case you’re looking for a few less obvious incentives, here are 10 more reasons to sign up to cleanup.

Weird finds from the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

Weird finds from the 2013 International Coastal Cleanup. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

After this one day of cleaning up trash on beaches across the world, you could:

  1. Furnish a studio apartment (fridge, TV, complete bed set? Check).
  2. Get ready for an upcoming wedding with the wedding dress and veil, top hat, and bowties that have turned up in the past.
  3. Outfit a baby (including clothes, bottles, high chairs, and baby monitor).
  4. Find your lost cell phone.
  5. Adopt a cyborg sea-kitty.
  6. Make friends with the 200,000+ others participating in the United States.
  7. Get some exercise (and fresh air). In 2013, U.S. volunteers cleaned up 8,322 miles of shoreline.
  8. Create a massive marine debris mosaic mural with the nearly 2.3 million, less-than-an-inch long pieces of plastic, foam, and glass found on beaches worldwide.
  9. Stock up the entire United States with enough fireworks to celebrate Fourth of July (and then organize a Fifth of July cleanup).
  10. Help you and your neighbors benefit millions of dollars by keeping your local beaches spic-and-span.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program is a proud sponsor of the International Coastal Cleanup and we’ll be right there pitching in too. Last year NOAA volunteers across the nation helped clean up more than 1,000 pounds of debris from our Great Lakes, ocean, and waterways in Washington, D.C.; Alabama; Washington; Oregon; California; and Hawaii.

Join us on Saturday, September 20 from 9:00 a.m. to noon and help keep our seas free of trash with any one (or all) of these 10 easy steps:

10 things you can do for trash-free seas. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

10 things you can do for trash-free seas. Credit: Ocean Conservancy

You can find more trashy facts in the Ocean Conservancy’s 2014 Ocean Trash Index.


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Diving for Debris: Washington’s Success Story in Fishing Nets out of the Ocean

The scale of the challenges facing the ocean—such as overfishing, pollution, and acidification—is enormous, and their solutions, achievable but complex. That is why the impressive progress in cleaning up a major problem in one area—Washington’s Puget Sound—can be so satisfying. Get a behind-the-scenes look at this inspiring progress in a new video from NOAA-affiliate Oregon SeaGrant on the Northwest Straits Foundation net removal project.

For over a decade, the Northwest Straits Foundation, supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, state agencies, and many others, has been removing lost and abandoned fishing nets from the inland ocean waters of Puget Sound.

A problem largely invisible to most of us, these fishing nets are a legacy of extensive salmon fishing in the Puget Sound which is now much diminished. Lost during fishing operations, the nets are now suspended in the water column or settled on the seafloor, where they snare dozens of marine species, including marine birds and mammals, and degrade the ocean habitat where they were lost. Made of plastic, these nets do not degrade significantly and continue to catch and kill animals indiscriminately for many years.

Man on a boat removing derelict nets from Puget Sound.

Removing derelict nets south of Pt. Roberts in Washington’s Puget Sound. (NOAA)

However, with the help of highly skilled divers, the foundation has removed over 4,700 of these lost nets from Puget Sound. They estimate there are fewer than 900 left in the area and, working with local commercial fishers, have a good handle on the small number of nets currently lost each year.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program has collaborated on or funded over 200 projects to research, prevent, and remove marine debris from waters around the United States. You can learn more about our other projects, such as the Fishing for Energy program, at clearinghouse.marinedebris.noaa.gov.

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